Published on: 10:14AM Apr 13, 2009
Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden at the White House is one stimulus project that every American should support. It’s a pro-growth agenda in the most literal sense imaginable.
It’s also an exciting opportunity to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to educate Americans about outdoor activity, healthy eating, and food production. They may even learn a few things about farming.
Millions of Americans plant gardens each year, and they do it for any number of good reasons. Lots enjoy the taste of perfectly ripened fruits and vegetables or the sight of brightly colored flowers. Others appreciate gardening as a low-impact exercise. Many find it therapeutic to dig in the dirt, deposit seeds, and nurture what sprouts.
The First Lady plans a 1,100-square foot garden with 55 kinds of vegetables. Fifth graders from a local elementary school already have helped her get started. “My hope,” she told the New York Times, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”
One of the most important lessons gardens can teach is about agriculture. We live in a society in which most people are completely cut off from food production. Never before in history have so few produced so much for so many. Put another way, never before have so many relied upon so few for life’s essentials.
This is the welcome result of astonishing efficiency. The downside is that a bumper crop of consumers fails to appreciate the enormous challenges of successful farming. They have little concept of how food travels from farm to fork, or how to meet the daunting challenges of weather, water, soil, pests, weeds, and transportation. To thrive in this business, it takes a combination of hard work, wise management, and access to scientific ingenuity.
Gardens hold the potential to correct this imbalance because they impose similar demands on a smaller scale. If you don’t fertilize and water your garden and I don’t fertilize and irrigate my fields, we’ll wind up with the same disappointing result.
As much as gardens can teach us about agriculture, it would be a mistake to think of them strictly as little farms--or, conversely, to think of farms as really big gardens. We can’t feed the world from everybody’s backyard.
On my farm, I have all the tomatoes I need and then some: a couple thousand acres of them. Yet my wife and I also grow a little plot by our house, where we raise about 25 heirloom tomatoes.
Why do we bother? Well, there’s nothing quite like picking a fresh tomato and immediately chopping it up for your salad or salsa. The flavor is unbeatable.
Our heirloom tomatoes are like pets. The only thing we haven’t done is give them names, though each variety has its own special moniker chosen by the original grower: Boxcar Willie, Dagma’s Perfection, Black Krim, and so on. We’re currently growing them in peat pots. We move them outside each morning, where they can soak up the rays of the sun. They come inside each night, where they receive protection from the cold. Eventually, we’ll plant them in the soil and await our mini-harvest this summer.
This is no way to meet society’s constant need for more food, of course. Given the amount of care that goes into these personal gardens, the output is not sustainable on a large scale.
What’s more, these are fragile plants with thin skins. This is one of the traits that make them delicious. But it also cuts down on their practicality. I can barely walk one over to my neighbor’s house without doing it damage--to say nothing of putting it in a crate and shipping it to a grocery store across the country. They’re also terribly prone to insects and disease. As a consequence, the yields are low: They’re about half of what I anticipate from the tomatoes on my farmland.
Gardening and farming may share a few common characteristics, but ultimately one is a leisure-time hobby and the other is a professional calling.
Even so, my farming family derives an enormous amount satisfaction from its garden. We don’t need a justification more complicated than that--and neither do the Obamas.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org